JSU Newswire
Jacksonville, Alabama

Life After The New York Times:
A Literary Career

Rick Bragg at Home
(Photo by Steve Latham, University Photographer)

By Sherry Kughn
JSU News Bureau

PLEASANT VALLEY --February 9, 2004 -- Author, journalist Rick Bragg has reincarnated himself as a literary contender now that his New York Times career is behind him.

Bragg says he is “back home.” He’s living close to the place he made famous with his stories of growing up poor in Appalachia, that is in Possom Trot, just east of where he lives now in Pleasant Valley. His only job now is writing books.

Bragg has bought his publicity-shy mother, Margaret, a new house. It’s made of rock and cedar, but it’s not a grandiose house in the way “rock and cedar” frequently bring to mind. It’s a simple home made lovelier by the way it sits atop a small hill surrounded with several acres of pastureland, woodlands, and a small pond.

Bragg is also near what he considers his college home. Wherever he goes he tells people that he’s a freshman at Jacksonville State University. He laughs knowing that even though his academic studies haven’t taken him beyond being a freshman, his career success has taken him places that few people go. He spent a year of study at Harvard University.

Bragg attended JSU in the late 1970s where he took feature writing and reporting. He doesn’t remember finishing the reporting class. “I think I got an incomplete,” he said in an interview this past winter. “I was too anxious to sit still in school.” Nonetheless, Bragg holds a Pulitzer Prize in the field of journalistic feature writing, and his books usually hit the bestseller’s lists.

At the time he was a student, Bragg also served as a sports reporter at The Jacksonville News. It was his first reporting job, one he took out of high school after “doing pick and shovel work.” From The News he went to The Daily Home in Talladega and later to The Anniston Star and The Birmingham News. He thrived in the newsroom setting, and his local experience led to bigger reporting jobs. He moved next to the St. Petersburg Times, worked briefly at The Los Angeles Times and then went to work for The New York Times.

It was while working for The Times that Bragg won the Pulitzer in 1996 for a series of feature stories he covered about contemporary America. Included were stories about elderly prisoners; the sheriff who arrested Susan Smith for drowning her children; a Mississippi cleaning woman who donated money to a university; and the Oklahoma bombing. The Pulitzer judges called the pieces, “elegantly written.”

Bragg loved the life of a corresponding reporter. He went to exotic places, met people who were far different from those he grew up with in Calhoun County. His stories helped people, he discovered, such as those published during the Haitian crises in the early 1990s, which possibly hastened the United States invasion. Other stories shed light on people in desperate situations. People told him their stories, he learned, and trusted him. It was a trust he valued.

There was a downside to his job, though. He missed his family. Traveling was often hard, and his job was sometimes dangerous. He stayed so busy he never had time to start his own family. Looking back, though, he says he has no regrets about his career.

“I always had a choice,” he said. “I did what I wanted to do.”

Throughout his years as a reporter, Bragg wrote books. His first, All Over But the Shoutin’, came out in 1997. It was a personal memoir honoring his mother for her sacrifice in raising her three sons. It also chronicled his career. He published a collection of his favorite news stories called, Somebody Told Me. He wrote another memoir, Ava’s Man, by interviewing family members who told him about his maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum. The book was published in 2002.

Bragg collected awards like pearls on a string for both his journalism and his literary career. In the early 1990s he applied for and received the prestigious Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University (1992-93). He twice received the Distinguished Writing Award by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and won dozens of national, regional and state writing awards. In addition his books have won awards from the Southeast Booksellers Association, the Alabama Library Association, the Southern Book Critics Circle, and his books have been selected for book reads, even once by the entire state of Arkansas.

In spite of all of his achievements the walls in Bragg’s basement office have no trace of any of his achievements or awards.  “When I was younger I put them all on the wall,” he said. “I guess I thought it all made me look smart. I don’t care so much anymore about looking smart.”

Bragg has good reason to be more reserved these days. After Ava’s Man was published, and while he was working in New Orleans for The Times, a controversy blew up at the New York office where Jayson Blair, a reporter, was accused of faking news stories. The publicity led to an accusation that Bragg was using a stringer without attributing the work. Bragg defended himself by saying that Times editors were aware of his use of the stringer. Editors, though, in light of Blair’s troubles, suspended Bragg for two weeks, with pay. He resigned shortly afterward.

What happened after Bragg resigned underscored his claim that he’s led a charmed life. He received a contract to write the story of American soldier Jessica Lynch. He received a half million dollars from the publisher, and he got a contract for writing two more books. When the book tour was over, Bragg didn’t look for a new job. He decided to focus entirely on his literary career.

Now that Bragg’s life has settled, he is reflective about things he missed during his days as a journalist.

“I want to take a vacation,” he said. “I haven’t had one that didn’t involve writing or work for seven years. I want to spend more time with Mom and my brother, Sam.”

Bragg says he missed attending family reunions, which he doesn’t plan to do again. There have been a few times, too, when he misses having a wife and children. "I recently watched a ballgame between Jacksonville High School and Cleburne County High School," he said. "As I sat up there in the stands and watched those boys, I thought how good it would be to have a son down there."

Bragg walked up from his basement and into the den with its rough-hewn walls and ceiling. As he walked he said that he hopes to use some of his time to catch a bass and maybe raise some bulls.

As Bragg spoke, his mother walked through the room with an armful of laundry.

“I’m scared of bulls,” she said. “I’m real scared of them.”

Bragg chuckled, shook his head and told her before she left the room that the bulls won’t hurt her. “She’s tough,” he said. “Sometimes I look out the window and see her dragging a big limb across the yard.”

After the interview Bragg walked onto his porch, which overlooks the pond that looks too little to grow a bass. Young bulls graze nearby and look up when hearing voices. Bragg, with his three-day beard and denim jeans, fits right in with the country scene.

“I’m getting back into the world I neglected,” he said, “and I hope I don’t have to miss family reunions anymore.”

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